Character Growth in “On the Road”

27 Aug

A friend of mine told me he was reading On the Road and couldn’t figure out what the point of the novel was.  He was only partway through and wanted to know if the characters ever grow.

I thought it was such a fascinating question!

As I’ve posted before, I do believe that the narrator, Sal Paradise, grows.  He is exceedingly complicated.  He’s zigzagging across America, refusing to conform to society.  And yet he keeps stating that’s what he so desperately wants.  He wants the house and the wife.  Likewise, he’s Sal Paradise—oh what a name!—is out cavorting with a car thief, and yet he’s constantly thinking about God and heaven and the holy.

I guess I can kind of relate to Sal Paradise a bit, and maybe that’s why I feel like the whole notion of whether his character grows is a complicated one.  I so often feel torn between two things that don’t seem to fit together.

I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a contemporary reader thing, or both, but it seems like we have this notion that characters have to change, grow, evolve.  We want them to become people by the end of the story.  …I guess that’s because we want that for our own lives.  We like inspirational stories—be they self-help books or Hollywood movies.  We think if this lowly character can overcome this-or-that, maybe we can too.

But how often does life play out like an inspirational book or movie?  Isn’t it more often the case that life is pretty mundane?  That we continually struggle with the same issues over and over again?  Aren’t we always searching for meaning?  Significance?  Trying to understand ourselves better?

I suppose if I’m honest, I do want to like the characters I read about, and I do want them to grow.  But I don’t think they have to.  I think part of what I love about On the Road has more to do with the language.  I’m not a huge fan of Kerouac’s poetry—though I do enjoy a few of his haikus—but I love the poetry imbued in On the Road.  I love reading his novel because of how sensual, visual it is.  I feel like I’m looking out the car window with him.  I don’t really care whether he’s in California or Mexico, whether he’s picking cotton or hitchhiking.  It’s all just so beautiful.


6 Responses to “Character Growth in “On the Road””

  1. David Amram August 27, 2012 at 1:38 pm #


    in your last message.

    In one short paragraph, you nailed why so many people around the world in the last 55 years LOVE this book!!

    your final thoughts……..

    “I love reading his novel because of how sensual, visual it is. I feel like I’m looking out the car window with him. I don’t really care whether he’s in California or Mexico, whether he’s picking cotton or hitchhiking. It’s all just so beautiful.”

    This should be put as part of every book (with quotes crediting you) that deals with Jack and his work.

    What you expresses so compellingly is what those of still here who were blessed to know him hope that the new film and future books about Jack will emphasize.
    That he is speaking to and traveling with the reader, and making you feel welcome to be part of it!!

    Today’s readers (and even critics) are no longer hung up on Charles Dickens, Cervantes or Doestyevsky’s sentence structure or personal behavior. They READ THEIR BOOKS and become involved in the tales that they tell!!

    Every day this is becoming more the case with Jack.

    It is only in a culture where you are trained to think that you need a can opener to try and find someone’s heart and soul, that often the beauty that surrounds us is frequently overlooked.
    Jack knew better.
    Fortunately, he wrote it all down.

    Can hardly wait to read your book, which you and Paul worked on. Just rereading Paul’s book of interviews with, and articles about Jack, which is illuminating and moving.
    Also you must check out Joyce Johnson’s new book.
    it is FABULOUS!!

    Keep up your great work See you Monday!!

    • Greg August 28, 2012 at 12:03 am #

      Ditto, Stephanie. I loved your comments. And David, thank you for your collaborations at the Mariposa Folk Festivals many years ago, where I heard you and a lot of other amazing musicians whatever year(s) it was. The format of many totally different people’s musical genres being mixed and matched was magical, kindof like a film / music / farmer’s Market / coffeehouse I went to back in the late 80’s in a small town hall in Hatfield, MA.

      Cheers, from an old fan.

      Any near to Northampton gigs coming up in the near future?

      All the best!

      • Stephanie Nikolopoulos August 28, 2012 at 10:23 am #

        Greg, thanks for your comments!

        I’ve visited Northampton a few times. What a great city!

    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos August 28, 2012 at 10:21 am #

      David, thank you so much for your kind words! I love what you say about people being trained to think they need a can opener. I completely agree. I’m all for higher education and for closely examining and analyzing a work of art, but sometimes by tearing apart a work and dissecting it one completely misses the point. It reminds me of Chuck Close’s paintings. The tiny details of his work are so important and make his work innovative and worth examining up close, but if you don’t step back and look at the whole picture you’ll completely miss the portrait.

      I studied Joyce Johnson at The New School. She was still working on her back at the time and read a few snippets from it. She also showed “Pull My Daisy,” which YOU are in!

  2. JHaeske August 28, 2012 at 5:38 am #

    You pretty much nailed it there Stephanie, and I don’t think Kerouac’s intention was to grow during that period and with OTR – of course, as you wrote, we all want to grow in some form or another. And wanting a partner and to settle down is equally natural – but experiencing people, things and the country was probably more on his mind – for whatever purpose. Just my two cents. J

    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos August 28, 2012 at 10:31 am #

      J, you’re right. One should consider authorial intent—and not just what the reader wants or expect to get out of a book.

      I agree that Kerouac started going on the road to travel and adventure and experience and to see the beauty of the land—there are so many great passages about this in On the Road—and I think there are points where he wakes up in hotel rooms, confused as to who he is, where he realizes he’s at both a physical and metaphorical dividing point in his life.

      You yourself have traveled a lot. How has travel influenced your view of yourself, where you’ve come from, where you’re headed?

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